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Max Verstappen says there is a rare “question mark” over the strength of Red Bull’s race pace heading into Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.

The world champions suffered just their second defeat in the last 21 races last time out in Melbourne but have put themselves in the best position to rebound strongly at Suzuka by locking out the grid’s front row.

Verstappen starts on pole for a fifth race in succession – matching the best sequence of his career – while team-mate Sergio Perez, who pushed the world champion surprisingly closely to qualify just 0.066s adrift, takes second to secure Red Bull’s first front-row lockout since 2023’s season-opening round in Bahrain.

McLaren’s Lando Norris starts third with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, the winner in Australia, fourth. The race starts at 6am, with build-up from 5am, live on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event.

But the world champions’ starting positions of strength was not being taken for granted by either Red Bull driver after qualifying a day after Friday afternoon’s practice running – when drivers usually complete their most sustained long-run simulations in preparation for the race – was largely washed out.

“So far I haven’t been happy with my long runs,” said polesitter Verstappen, who leads Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who starts only eighth, by four points and Perez by five in the Drivers’ Championship.

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Max Verstappen was unsatisfied with his lap despite finishing on pole for the Japanese Grand Prix

“The pace wasn’t what I would have liked. So there’s a bit of a question mark going into [the race] because looking at the long runs especially Ferrari, they looked very comfortable.

“Maybe they were not so quick over one lap but they looked fast in the long runs so we’ll have to wait and see how that will evolve in the race.

[McLaren are] also quite decent. I’m just not very happy with myself and how my long run was so naturally, everyone else looks a little bit better.”

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Sergio Perez believes he and Max Verstappen have gotten closer and predicts a tight battle at the Japanese Grand Prix

Perez concurred, adding: “I don’t think we are looking great at the moment in our long-run pace but we have made some changes and hopefully that will translate into a better race pace.”

Can Norris repeat his last start from third at Suzuka?

Verstappen absolutely dominated last year’s Japanese GP, when the event was held in September, taking pole by almost 0.6s from the McLaren duo Oscar Piastri and Norris before finishing 20s ahead of the latter in the race.

It could have been different at the race start though when Norris nearly got ahead of the polesitter on the outside from third as Verstappen initially moved left to cover off Piastri on his inside. Historically, the Suzuka polesitter has often been challenged for position on the long run to Turn One and through the sweeping first right-handed corner into the Esses.

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Highlights of the Japanese Grand Prix from the Suzuka circuit

Six months on and, with the chasing pack closer to Red Bull in qualifying, Norris again starts at the head of row two, albeit with Perez ahead of him this time too.

Asked what he could do about Verstappen and Perez in the race, Norris replied: “There’s not a lot to do. First lap, try and get a good start. Last year I was side by side with Max into Turn One so hopefully try to redo that.

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McLaren’s Lando Norris is optimistic he can secure a podium at the Japanese Grand Prix after qualifying third at Suzuka

“But it’s tricky, they are quick. They complained about their race pace, but I don’t think they have had a bad race in the last four, five years so they are going to be good.

“Of course, we have got a lot of pressure from behind so we have to keep an eye on the mirrors, but at the same time I want to go forward and I think we have pace to stay where we are so that’s my goal.”

Ferrari missed out on the front-row berth for the first time since last October’s Qatar GP with Sainz fourth and Charles Leclerc struggling with his car en route to eighth. But, as the Red Bull duo suggested, Sainz is expecting the SF-24 to perform better over Sunday’s longer distance when he will aim to get ahead of at least Norris.

“We have been better on the race pace this weekend but I don’t know if it will be good or bad,” said Sainz. “I hope we can fight them [McLaren] in the race because in qualy it was impossible.

“In the race, it would be nice to have a fight for the podium between Lando, me, Fernando [Alonso], Merc behind. It should be an interesting battle for the podium, I think the Red Bulls are unfortunately in a different league around here.”

Japanese GP Grid: Top 10

1. Max Verstappen, Red Bull

2. Sergio Perez, Red Bull

3. Lando Norris, McLaren

4. Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

5. Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin

6. Oscar Piastri, McLaren

7. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

8. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

9. George Russell, Mercedes

10. Yuki Tsunoda, RB

Lots of strategy options to spice up the race

There is just one DRS zone at Suzuka and the high-speed corners make it hard to follow, so overtaking is difficult.

Any overtakes will require bravery to commit into Turn One of the final chicane when going for a move, or to follow closely in the dirty air of the car in front.

Two pit stops are expected because Suzuka punishes the tyres, although the cooler conditions compared to last year, due to the race moving from September to April, may give an outside shot to a one-stop.

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Qualifying highlights of the Japanese Grand Prix from the Suzuka Circuit

If it is a two-stop race, it will see a mix of tyre compounds because the McLarens and Mercedes have two sets of hards but Ferrari and Red Bull have two sets of mediums.

Then you have Fernando Alonso in fifth for Aston Martin who only has one hard and one medium, so will need to use the soft tyre at some point if he pits more than once.

From this, it can almost certainly be said that Verstappen, Perez, Sainz and Leclerc are likely to go for a medium-hard-medium strategy whereas everyone else, apart from Alonso, will attempt a medium-hard-hard.

The undercut will be very powerful, so the teams may split strategies by making a driver pit earlier to jump ahead of the car in front, while telling the other driver to go longer in the hope of a Safety Car or to be in a charge later in the race with fresher tyres.

At the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix, the Mercedes drivers got very close on track as tensions rose when they nearly collided and McLaren had to use team orders too on their way to a double podium.

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George Russell believes there will be many opportunities to push up the grid and Lewis Hamilton added how optimistic he is with the car’s improvements this weekend

Playing the team game to help with strategy will be crucial again, given how close the field is.

“I think there’s a lot that can happen and everyone has different tyres available,” George Russell told Sky Sports F1.

“There will be many different strategies and a lot of opportunities. I think it will be a good race. It’s so tight out there between everyone.

“If you do a good job and nail it, you will jump three, four, five positions and compared to last year that would be one position.”

Sky Sports F1’s live Japanese GP schedule

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Look back on some of the most exciting title deciders to take place at the Japanese Grand Prix

Sunday April 7
5am: Grand Prix Sunday Japanese GP build-up*
6am: The JAPANESE GRAND PRIX*
8am: Chequered Flag: Japanese GP reaction*
9am: Ted’s Notebook*
9.30am: Japanese Grand Prix highlights*
10.30am: Japanese Grand Prix replay

*also live on Sky Sports Main Event

Formula 1’s biggest ever season continues with the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, live on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event with lights out at 6am. Stream every F1 race and more with a NOW Sports Month Membership – No contract, cancel anytime

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